Tuesday, June 26, 2012

[The previous three posts on Moonrise Kingdom are now consolidated as "An A B C of Puerility: Anderson, Britten, Crane" over at Aaron Bady's blog at TNI.]

A surplus of toys

A last (?) note on Moonrise Kingdom's puerility.

Stephen Crane is a master of the particular version of puerility; I think in particular of the Whilomville story "Lynx-Hunting," in which a group of Whilomville boys, led by Jimmie Trescott, stolidly defend the town against a grazing cow.

Crane, too, is continually said to work in miniatures; thus Michael Fried reads the final scene in The Monster as a scene of "reading painfully what has already been written, with the stove representing a domesticated (in effect miniaturized) version of the catastrophic fire" (142). Indeed, Fried argues, "two opposing tendencies, one toward miniaturization and the other toward a certain monstrosity, coinhabit Crane's prose" (141). The same could be, and has been, said of Wes Anderson's filmmaking.

This brings us back to Noye's Fludde, the systematized, aestheticized miniature of the real flood happening outside, which in the film takes on the cosmic significance of the Noah's Flood, the narrator going into some detail about its historic devastation. At a certain point the real flood takes precedence over everything else, disrupting Noye's Fludde and revealing every system as miniature, as diminutive.

Such moments appear in Crane as well. In The Material Unconscious, Bill Brown addresses Crane's poetry only once, in order to reveal the dimension of childish play latent in "The Open Boat":
The ocean speaks the lines of the poem, asking that the weeping woman on shore be told that her lover is dead: "Her lover I have laid/ In cool green hall." The second and final stanza supplements the message:
"Tell her this
"And more,—
"That the king of the seas
"Weeps too, old, helpless man.
"The bustling fates
"Heap his hands with corpses
"until he stands like a child
"With Surplus of toys." (W, 10:22)
The lines intimate an understanding of life and death that would make the entirety of "The Open Boat" intelligible as "play".... (Brown 123-4)

The great fear is that there is no end to this regress, that there are, indeed, no grown-ups in the room. Not only are all the adults invested in miniature systems; the Cosmic Adults are so many babies as well, pulling the heads off dolls.

Thus in Crane's story "Death and the Child," the unaware toddler playing on a mountaintop, accidentally abandoned by the evacuating villagers, is possessed of a godlike perspective on the battle below. To him the action looks like a doodle, "fantastic smoky shapes" and "white circles and whirligigs" and "[l]ines of flame" (Crane 962). When young Peza, foolishly overeager for battle, reaches the mountaintop and finds himself face to face with this baby, it is the baby who is in a position to inquire, "Are you a man?"

Of course, we don't quite have the same fear that gods are babies in Anderson's films. The weather exerts its whims, but there is always ultimately a grown-up chaperoning things—Anderson himself. The craftedness of his miniatures remind us that somebody has things under control.

That that register of control—the aesthetic—is the same register as that of the miniature, e.g. the church production of Noye's Fludde, however, may give us a moment's pause. In the end this film is deeply sympathetic to the ridiculous seriousness with which children and especially adults invest their play. For in the film, aesthetic satisfaction appears to be the only available site of even fictive shelter. One can but work on that production of Noye's Fludde, or pull a crisis back into the realm of Khaki Scouting by inspecting the camp and issuing a Commendable.

As Crane writes in Black Riders:
If there is a witness to my little life,
To my tiny throes and struggles,
He sees a fool;
And it is not fine for gods to menace fools. (Crane 1303)

Brown, Bill. The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane & the Economies of Play. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996. Print.

Crane, Stephen. Prose and Poetry: Maggie: A Girl of the Street; The Red Badge of Courage; Stories, Sketches and Journalism; Poetry. Ed. J. C. Levenson. New York, N.Y: Library of America, 1984. Print. The Library of America 18.

Fried, Michael. Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane. Paperback ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.

Monday, June 25, 2012

"I'm a raven."

I forgot to mention in my previous post one of my favorite things about Moonrise Kingdom, which was the liberal use of Benjamin Britten's works in the soundtrack. Movie nerds will recognize the theme from his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra as the Rondeau from Henry Purcell's Abdelazar, which was adapted (quite effectively, for solo violin) for a key scene in The Lesser Adaptation of Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

"I'm a raven."
The amateur production of Britten's Noye's Fludde, staged in a local church and replete with children dressed as animals, is, like the Khaki Scouts, its own kind of child-adult collusion in overenthusiasm. Suzy is a failed raven just as Sam is a failed Khaki Scout, failed on social grounds rather than out of incompetence. It is a "play" that is taken utterly seriously, especially by the grown-ups (like the one who demotes Suzy from her raven role). Play taken too seriously, or serious enterprises (like child care) rendered all too game-like (as when the best scout of all, Scoutmaster Ward, manages to lose first Sam, then the rest of the troop), continually threaten happiness. The only possible resistance is yet another system, an alternative game, a union between Sam's wilderness skills and Suzy's fantasy world, the game of their private Moonrise Kingdom.

Thus when all the other social systems of discipline converge, they do so at the church, in the midst of Noye's Fludde, in order to escape the actual flooding outside.

Britten is a serious, even difficult composer who has, when you think about it, written a great deal for children—both child audiences and child performers. He's especially known as a composer of liturgical music in a tradition famous for its boy choristers. I couldn't help noticing a movement from his Simple Symphony when it appeared in the film—a movement tellingly titled "Playful Pizzicato"—I'd played it as a child, after all. Using childish sounds—"playful" pizzicato (plucked strings), glockenspiels, high-pitched child voices, and at times almost comical bombast (including in the didactic Young Person's Guide)—Britten proffers Middle English texts and challenging harmonies. Thus, within the world of the film, his music marks the oscillations between "too easy" and "too hard" that marks every educational pursuit, every system for cultivating the self.

Anderson's own oeuvre, so often described in the terms of miniatures and toys (and including an animated adaptation of a children's book, Roald Dahl's 1970 Fantastic Mister Fox) aspires to similar comminglings. In Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson focalizes childhood as a site of real difficulty, one whose difficulties are not discontinuous with those of adulthood, and indeed, one whose difficulties are most adult when they reside in the domain of play.

Suzy lugs a suitcase of stolen library books through the wilderness, imaginative resources for building a private universe. Her fictions are bulwarks against the flood.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


[Spoilers for Moonrise Kingdom.]


There is hardly a clearer example of Foucauldian power than the Boy Scouts—a most codified set of techniques of the self, each self a set of badges pinned to the uniform.

I saw Moonrise Kingdom last night; the centrality of its "Khaki Scouts" highlights the way in which overinvestment in such systems conduces to tragicomedy, especially in Wes Anderson's films (The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Rushmore function similarly).

Particularly notable to me are the juxtapositions of adults and children; there is often intergenerational buy-in. There is something truly hilarious about a group of boys taking their scouting very seriously. Funnier still is the truest true believer, the adult Scoutmaster Ward, who avers that being a scout master is his real job: "I teach math on the side." But the boys' and men's beliefs exist in the same plane; Sam's adorable self-importance as he gives Suzy camping tips (of very widely varying utility) is later validated by his scout master's manner of offering sympathy: "I wish we'd had time for an inspection back there. I would have given you a Commendable."

As ridiculous as the Khaki Scouts are, they are soon revealed to be no more ridiculous than the other disciplinary institutions that they mimic—the law, as figured by Suzy's lawyer parents; the state, as figured by Social Services (Tilda Swinton, in some of the film's most visually striking moments—of course); and perhaps the most absurd of them all, the police, as figured by Commander Sharp. In a climactic scene, all four avatars of systematized discipline bark into walkie-talkies attempting to sort out the proper placement of the two children, four criss-crossing domains of authority emblematized by five bewildered—but still entirely invested—adults. At the end, when Sharp agrees to foster the orphaned Sam, Sam switches out the Khaki Scouts uniform in which we have always seen him for a miniature police uniform. He has merely switched systems.

In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf mocks men's love of fancy dress by pointing to the pomp and circumstance of the military. Busby Berkeley's Footlight Parade (1933) contains a military dance sequence ("Shanghai Lil") that indeed quite undermines any distinction between the military and the Tiller Girls when it comes to examples of the mass ornament. What I am getting at is that there is a pettiness in these systems—and it is precisely the pettiness that interests Anderson—that we may identify as a form of puerility. It is "boyish" behavior, both highly elaborated and ridiculous, even if adults are frequently the originators of that puerility. (What is The Life Aquatic if not a story about a man playing with the people and things around him as if they were so many toys?) These are systems of play entered into for their own sake, and prioritized regardless of the consequences. (A pet dog is killed in one encounter; when confronted with this fact, Sam's nemesis shrugs and says something to the effect that it can't be helped; the dog is a casualty of war.)

Puerility and its powerful appeal—its necessity, even—is one of Anderson's continual themes. Why do people invest themselves in ridiculous systems? When is such investment reprehensible? From what standpoint is one capable of distinguishing between puerility and grandeur of vision—or does any such distinction exist?

Kracauer, Siegfried. "The Mass Ornament." The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966. Print.

Puerility is also one of Stephen Crane's great themes.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Twit twit twit

In Electric Animal, Akira Mizuta Lippit identifies the animal cry as the limit point beyond speech:
The animal cry signals the moment of contact between those two ontic worlds: the cry is, as Derrida explains, a signal burdened with the antidiscursive force of animality and madness. Burke's 1757 reflection on the sublime includes a section on "The Cries of Animals." For Burke, the experience of the sublime aroused by the animal's cry imposes a moment wholly outside time—an extemporaneous moment—in which the dynamics of reason are temporarily halted. (43)

Paul Klee, Twittering Machine, 1922
Yet a long philosophical tradition (including Kant) also locates in the animal cry the source of human speech, insofar as speech is imagined as originating in the mimicry of animal sounds (Lippit 41).

So there is something coy about the way that Twitter names itself after animal sounds,
as if to suggest that there is something fundamentally antilinguistic about social media text. "Don't mind us," it seems to say; "we're just twittering, like animals. No language to see here."

I think that in some cases this makes people feel as though they have to live up to a kind of antilinguistic standard on Twitter, to introduce noise gratuitously as if in homage to the medium—as if to make it really tweeting. That's the only explanation I can think of for tweets like this one from Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa; @ChuckGrassley), whom I imagine writes like this only on Twitter:

In contrast with common abbreviations and slang, which are underwritten by identifiable (if diverse) logics, here the abbreviations and nonstandardisms seem random, even perverse. For example, "evr." does not save any characters; a period would seem better spent at the end of the first, unstopped sentence. As for the wasted space before the question mark or the capitalized "Learn"—what can these be but antilinguistic performances? (I was interested to learn, incidentally, that Sen. Grassley shares my hatred of the "History" Channel.)

T. S. Eliot, from The Waste Land, 1922
The fact that the animal in question with Twitter is the bird adds another dimension to consider. Bird-talk is gendered feminine, from the speechless Philomel ("twit twit twit"—she is turned into a bird to enforce her speechlessness, when cutting out her tongue is not enough) to the cheeping and twittering of the town women in The Music Man:

It's no wonder Twitter is seen as a site of gossip and rumor, intellectual triviality and linguistic disaster. It intentionally casts itself as mere animal noises, or, what evidently amounts to the same thing, female speech. And as I've suggested elsewhere, the radical multiplicity of voices on Twitter likewise suggests a flock indiscriminately cheeping.

This is undoubtedly the source of the fears that are occasionally raised that social media are making us lose our grip on language, as if that were a thing that could be so easily lost. (Try writing like Gertrude Stein. It's not easy.) To lose language might just be to lose our humanity, and then where would we be?

Well, the posthuman turn is so five years ago that it's difficult to get exercised about such a question. The interesting implications do not lie in fears of loss, for we are all already cyborgs or animals.

But good old Twitter—it makes us both at once.


Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Print.

When the birds attack Bodega Bay in Hitchcock's film (1963), a terrified mother lashes out at the film's avatar of liberated (and threateningly undomesticated) femininity, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren): "I think you're the cause of all this. I think you're evil!" One reading of The Birds would take the birds as a furious feminine multiplicity, attacking domesticity and the family as if in revenge.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Déjà vu, déjà vu (or, The Jazz Singer Had Intertitles)

Like everyone else, I'm following the events at UVa with great interest and concern. The students running the UVa paper, the Cavalier Daily, deserve recognition for their serious journalism: they FOIAed the emails of the Board of Visitors pertaining to their removal of President Sullivan.* Talk about "strategic dynamism."

Not a real newspaper. (From Singin' in the Rain, 1952)
The emails are frankly shocking: they seem to indicate that the Board was acting not out of vision, but out of a fear: that MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), à la Stanford's Udacity (I know, worst name ever) and MIT's EdX (second worst) were revolutionizing the university, the way that The Jazz Singer made silent film obsolete...according to Singin' in the Rain (1952), although not according to actual film history. In the Board's view, MOOCs were about to make UVa obsolete, and Teresa Sullivan wasn't jumping on the bandwagon with sufficient "strategic dynamism." And where did they get this idea? From an article in the Wall Street Journal and a David Brooks column.

Allow that to sink in for a minute. They took a David Brooks column seriously.

This is a guy who has the temerity (Udacity?) to think he's alternately a sociologist and an evolutionary biologist, but is not qualified to be either one.** The Board of Visitors wanted to run UVa "like a business"—but, as David Karpf points out, in a fantasy world in which businesses actually took their cues from David Brooks columns. It's kind of like thinking Singin' in the Rain offers an actionable model of the history of technology, the key difference being that Gene Kelley and Debbie Reynolds, unlike Brooks, can dance.

The bitter irony is that UVa is actually packed to the gills with experts in online learning and media—smart people versed in the literature who have actually considered this as a complex pedagogical and research question, who see online learning as an intellectual opportunity and not just a cheesy get-rich-quick scheme. One of the Board's most outspoken critics, Siva Vaidhyanathan, is a media studies professor; UVa is also home to the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the Scholars Lab. I'm sure I haven't even scratched the surface with these few examples. But why ask experts, when you can pass around a David Brooks column?

There's a widespread stereotype that academics are anti-business, a stereotype usually framed in a notion of academics as head-in-the-clouds ivory-tower-dwellers and business as "real" ("economic realities," folks! also "excellence"!).*** But that's not really true. What academics almost by their very nature oppose is ignorance and anti-intellectualism.

Given what we know from the emails FOIAed by the Cavalier Daily, the recent actions of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia are driven by a profound, thoroughgoing anti-intellectualism, one that rejects expertise as such.

This is far from an isolated incident—just one whose consequences were sudden, drastic, and highly visible.

You may remember a minor uproar in early May when a blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Ed (of all places), Naomi Schaefer Riley, declared Black Studies a worthless discipline because she had read some dissertation titles did not understand them. I called this "anti-intellectualism, déjà vu," because we'd seen it all before. At the time, the world's most ineffectual PR flack, the Chronicle's Amy Lynn Alexander, suggested that readers redirect their outrage toward the defunding of the California State University system, which was happening concurrently.

Gautam Premnath rightly pointed out that anti-intellectualism like Riley's—the idea that a pundit could just dismiss whole disciplines out of hand based on a proud lack of knowledge—was precisely what made such attacks on public education possible.

Here we see it again: same song, different verse. Why consult experts at our own university on matters of substance in which they are expert, when we can listen to a pundit? Why, for that matter, study media history when you can just watch Singin' in the Rain? Why aim for true when plausible is right in front of you?

Why, indeed, go to university at all?

No wonder the Board of Visitors thought the University of Virginia was being made obsolete by TED Talks on the internet. Given what the Cavalier Daily has uncovered, that really is what passes for knowledge with them.

Cross-posted at Arcade.

* I kind of love "FOIA" as a verb.

**Enjoy the Mark Liberman classic "David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist." Liberman is one of the few people who still goes to the trouble of zinging pundits for not knowing what on earth they're talking about. Most of us just accept it as part of life.

***If I could figure out where I laid down my volume of Henry James essays, I would quote the early review of Nana in which James defends against the notion that things that are nasty have some kind of privileged reality-status. I can't seem to find it at the moment, and this is probably going to bother me until I do. Argh.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tumbleweeds/beyond everything

So, the sad truth is that I have started a Tumblr. It was time for me to understand Tumblr a little better.

The differences between a blog and a Tumblr, apart from the social/sharing dimension of Tumblr, are subtle, but generally speaking Tumblrs seem to me to be very much about content over personality, and personalities on Tumblr are very self-consciously performed. All of Tumblr is in drag. This is, of course, appealing.

Meanwhile I've been blogging very rarely here, perhaps because I'm still wandering in the wilderness when it comes to the piece I'm working on at the moment, which is and is not about the writings of Stephen Crane.

The Tumblr is a good place to put orts and fragments, and that's where I've recently deposited a few instances of a phrase that strikes me as epitomizing Henry James's style: "beyond everything." He certainly uses the phrase a lot, although, as a quick Google Books ngrams search suggests, James was writing rather at the peak of "beyond everything" (but then again, how much of the GB corpus is simply saturated with James?—And who or what among us is not, rightly, saturated with James?).

Mark Seltzer's Bodies and Machines (1992) is pretty unmistakably a book about literary naturalism, but Seltzer continually has to talk about "naturalism and realism," or at times use one or the other word to refer to both categories. That's fair: nobody quite knows the difference between naturalism and realism, although we're all prepared to say that The Rise of Silas Lapham and The Portrait of a Lady are "realism" and McTeague and Sister Carrie are naturalism, and feel like we know what we mean when we make the distinction. One of the few people to offer a really definitive statement on the matter was Frank Norris, who wrote of naturalism in "Zola as a Romantic Writer" (1886),
This is not romanticism—this drama of the people, working itself out in blood and ordure. It is not realism. It is a school by itself, unique, somber, powerful beyond words.
But what is this distinction exactly, that separates naturalism from both romanticism and realism? When you're reduced to calling a literary genre (made of words, after all) powerful beyond words, you know something is up; we're asked to believe that this is a form of representation that can rise up and shed its status as representation. Instead of words we have "working out" in "blood and ordure." (One thinks of the "lines" on the battlefield in Stephen Crane's fiction, which perform the reverse action—blood and ordure continually admitting themselves to be "words, words, words," as in Michael Fried's classic reading.) For Norris, however, naturalism is not even really about words anymore; it's just beyond—"beyond everything." There's a reason Mark Seltzer's book about naturalism ("and realism") has an entire chapter on Henry James.

To be "beyond everything" is to be at the limit, outside. James is a great user of the unqualified "everything," "everything" as an answer or as a landing place, not "everything else" or "everything I can think of" but the totality, the absolute kitchen-sink inclusion of all that is or can be. "Everything" is so inclusive as to lack meaning; this ambiguity is, as it were, everything to The Wings of the Dove (1902), for example, as we see in an exchange between Kate Croy and Merton Densher (about what a horrible person Kate's father is):

[MD:] "It's so vague that what am I to think but that you may very well be mistaken? What has he done, if no one can name it?"

[KC:] "He has done everything."

"Oh—everything! Everything's nothing."

It's therefore a kind of cop-out to call anything "beyond everything," and yet at times necessary to mark the place where representation fails and we are forced, like Frank Norris, to helplessly and oxymoronically declare ourselves simply beyond.

Nymphs and nuns were certainly separate types, but Mr. Verver, when he really amused himself, let consistency go. The play of vision was at all events so rooted in him that he could receive impressions of sense even while positively thinking. He was positively thinking while Maggie stood there, and it led for him to yet another question—which in its turn led to others still. "Do you regard the condition of hers then that you spoke of a minute ago?"

"The condition—?"

"Why that of having loved so intensely that she's, as you say, 'beyond everything'?"

Maggie had scarcely to reflect—her answer was so prompt. "Oh, no. She's beyond nothing. For she has nothing."

"I see. You must have had things to be beyond them. It's a kind of law of perspective."

Maggie didn't know about the law, but she continued definite. "She's not, for example, beyond help."

"Oh, well then, she shall have all we can give her. I'll write to her," he said, with pleasure."

"Angel!" she answered as she gaily and tenderly looked at him.

True as this might be, however, there was one thing more—he was an angel with a human curiosity. "Has she told you she likes me much?"

"Certainly she has told me—but I won't pamper you. Let it be enough for you it has always been one of my reasons for liking her."

"Then she's indeed not beyond everything," Mr. Verver more or less humorously observed.

—Henry James, The Golden Bowl (1904)

And perhaps the thing that makes us want to distinguish between realism and naturalism is that realism (James) will ask us to meditate on what it could mean to be "beyond everything," and naturalism (Norris) will ask us to imagine for a moment that we are "beyond everything." Naturalism doesn't have that recourse to urbanity and humor that pulls us back and makes us question the very idea of "beyond everything." Here's The Golden Bowl again:

"My idea is this, that when you only love a little you're naturally not jealous—or are only jealous also a little, so that it doesn't matter. But when you love in a deeper and intenser way, then you are, in the same proportion, jealous; your jealousy has intensity and, no doubt, ferocity. When, however, you love in the most abysmal and unutterable way of all—why then you're beyond everything, and nothing can pull you down."

Mr. Verver listened as if he had nothing, on these high lines, to oppose. "And that's the way you love?"

For a minute she failed to speak, but at last she answered: "It wasn't to talk about that. I do feel, however, beyond everything—and as a consequence of that, I daresay," she added with a turn to gaiety, "seem often not to know quite where I am."

"For a minute," Maggie is herself "beyond everything," or at least (as Norris might say) "beyond words"; "she failed to speak." But just as humor rescues Mr. Verver and relieves him of contemplating "beyond everything" in the previous selection, Maggie is able to pull back from the beyond "beyond everything," and can move back into speech "with a turn to gaiety." A certain segment of discourse, the one corresponding to the "beyond everything," is proscribed: "It wasn't to talk about that." But gaiety lets us go.

Nothing doing in naturalism, however: we will embrace oxymoron (words that are powerful beyond words) before we will back off of the "beyond." Naturalism needs something to be "beyond," and it is precisely the realist project of representation that it aims to take as the limit it wishes to overstep.

Even reading short fragments of James makes you start using the word "simply" with unusual frequency as well.

Fried, Michael. Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.

James, Henry. The Golden Bowl. Ed. Virginia Llewellyn Smith. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Print. The World’s Classics.

———. The Wings of the Dove. Novels, 1901-1902. New York: Library of America : Distributed to the tradein the United States by Penguin Putnam, 2006. Print. The Library of America 162.

Norris, Frank. "Zola as a Romantic Writer." Novels and Essays. Ed. Donald Pizer. New York, N.Y: Library of America ; distributed by Viking Press, 1986. Print. Library of America 33.

Seltzer, Mark. Bodies and Machines. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Dwelling attained, I have returned from my sojourn to the northern wastes, where it is still, like, friggin' spring, and have resumed my rightful all-peach diet.